The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is published Viking Penguin. It is a No.1 New York Times Bestseller and Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick and, after absolutely inhaling it, I can understand why.
The Paper Palace is a disconcerting story of love, regret, anguish and taking chances. It is a book with an ending that will polarise, leaving many readers undecided about what exactly happened in those final few pages. Be prepared for a story that is heart-breaking, one that will shock and sadden as truths are slowly revealed.
In a family summer residence in Cape Cod Elle Bishop and her family gather annually for a get-together remembering those gone before and catching up on each other’s lives. Opening with an act of infidelity, the reader is then transported back over half a century as the lives and loves of Elle and her family are explored.
Elle grew up part of a very fractured family, with her parents and grandparents all having numerous partners, marriages and divorces. “In my mother’s family, divorce is just a seven-letter word. Letters that could be replaced with ‘I’m bored’ or ‘bad luck’.” Her sister Anna and herself were greatly impacted by their mother Wallace’s humour on any given day. Over the years Wallace revealed snippets of some of the traumatic events of her life that scarred her but Wallace refused to let life grind her down. Elle and Anna became used to her temperament and her at times, unorthodox, approach to child rearing. Their mother saw the world through quite a distorted lens but at times the wisdom she dispensed was worth noting.
Now, in her fifties, Elle is looking back at her life following a transgression with an old flame. Elle is married to London born Peter. An incident on a London street in 1989 that left Elle shaken was their initial meeting. He is quintessentially British and it is that solidity that appeals to Elle. He is patient, a wonderful father and completely in love with Elle. But Elle carries a dark secret close to her heart, one that has affected every moment of her life. When a young girl, flitting around the waters of the Cape, Elle met Jonas. He was younger than her but wise beyond his years. Something clicked between the two of them and they would spend hours together, sympathetic to each others’ stories. A shocking event cast an invisible net over them that changed their lives forever. Over the years that followed they crossed paths but, bar occasional hook ups, their relationship always remained in the background…until now.
Elle and Jonas have a moment of heightened passion outside the door of the Cape Cod camp, with all the family inside. Elle is confused between desire and want. She loves Jonas, and always has, but their relationship is built on very rocky foundations. Peter is a solid figure in her life, a provider, a man who she dearly loves but yet….
Miranda Cowley Heller has created a novel that really will stir the emotions. Set over a 24-hour period, the reader is presented with a family that on the surface appears enviable, with their privileged lifestyle, but what soon becomes clear, is that it is all just an illusion. A fractured family is laid bare as all their innermost secrets are revealed.
The Paper Palace is not an easy read. It deals with themes of an abusive nature that are extremely disturbing and uncomfortable and, for some, possibly quite difficult to process. Miranda Cowley Heller does not shy away from depicting these scenes, leaving the reader with a real sense of foreboding and sadness lingering in the mind. Descriptions abound throughout The Paper Palace adding a very strong visual to the whole experience, really bringing the characters very much to life.
An all-consuming read, The Paper Palace is an intense, discombobulating and seductive story that really got under my skin. A truly remarkable debut, The Paper Palace is a provocative, lush and beautifully written novel and yes, most definitely, a book I highly recommend.
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.